If you were a shallow person, you might think Nidhogg is a simple game in which two low-res sprites try to run to opposite sides of a 2D level. But you Arcade Sushi readers aren’t shallow people, are you? That’s why you know Nidhogg is an innovative and interesting fighting game/platformer hybrid that manages to build nearly immeasurable hype when played with friends. Forget Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Smash Bros., Nidhogg is where it’s at.

The concept is simple. Two players start in the middle of a 2D level and try to run to opposite ends. However, the screen locks in place until someone dies. This is the genius twist that makes the game work. Each player starts with a sword, and managing to even graze your opponent with the sword kills him instantly. So it’s up to you to thrust forward, alter the height of your blade, parry your opponent’s blade, and even try to knock it out of their hand in order to gain that one simple touch. Once you have managed to turn your opponent into a corpse, you gain the blessing of the “arrow,” which means the screen will follow you as it scrolls, effectively preventing your opponent from moving forward. Reach the end and you will have the honor of being devoured by the Nidhogg, the great serpent that gnaws at the roots of the world tree, itself.  It’s a lot like football… with swords… and giant planet eating worms.

This makes Nidhogg sound like a simple sword fighting simulator, but you can play dirty if you want to and doing so deepens the gameplay . Getting tired of constantly trying to score a perfectly fenced touch? Throw your sword at your opponent’s face. Of course, if you do, you are left without a sword. Luckily, everyone in Nidhogg is skilled in the art of the divekick, as well as several other martial arts. You can punch, sweep the leg, roll and perform any number of other acrobatic maneuvers in the hopes of knocking your opponent out and continuing onward. Beware however, as knocking your opponent out only temporarily stalls him. He will soon get up and start to hunt you down once more… so be sure to stop by his lifeless body and break his neck or tear out his heart or whatever these retro sprites are doing that causes blood to shoot out of corpses like a geyser.

Knocking your opponent out also gives you another advantage--the ability to pick up his sword. By simply pressing down as you run over a sword, you’ll pick it up off the ground and you can proceed to have a stabbing party. “But wait,” you might be thinking. “Weren’t the only two swords, the two you and your opponent started with?” In a sense, yes. However, every time you respawn, you respawn with a sword in hand. In addition, every time you die, your bloody corpse sticks around along with its sword. Effectively, every death begins littering the battlefield with more and more swords, which slowly increases the power level of the battle. While early stages of a Nidhogg fight may consist of jabs and feints and a delicate dance of dodging and thrusting, later stages feature swords flying everywhere, people cartwheeling into deadly downward stabs, and divekicks galore.

The pace is hyperactive with re-spawns being almost instant, and it works. A death early on simply means fighting your opponent again a couple screens down the line. A small slip up only means your opponent gains a little bit of ground and you pop up again, ready to throw a sword at his face. If you get too cocky, soon your streak of momentum will be broken and suddenly your opponent will start gaining ground on you. Knowing when to make a mad dash for the finish and knowing when to sit and wait out your opponent’s advances are key skills that will have to be mastered to play Nidhogg effectively.

Luckily, that is what you will be spending all of your time doing, mastering skills, because Nidhogg has virtually no barrier to entry. The entire game is played with only a directional pad and two buttons. Your many attacks and techniques are activated only by holding the d-pad in a certain direction and pressing a button. It’s even simpler than Smash Bros. The basics of Nidhogg are so fundamental and you’d think it would get shallow, but it just doesn’t. You can watch your opponent wriggle in pain at the end of your sword for ages, especially after he ended up there by underestimating the distance between you, the sword on the ground and the exit he was running toward.

The stage design of Nidhogg is simply brilliant. It features gaps, floating platforms, falling platforms, tight tunnels that force you to sword fight even if you don’t want to and even tall grass that almost completely obscures the action. There are only four stages in Nidhogg, but each one consists of multiple screens each with a different theme focusing on a different set of skills. They are coupled with trippy backgrounds that look like a Commodore 64 designer got high on acid and just had a field day. For some reason it still all fits together.

If the basic action of Nidhogg starts to get boring, you can try one of the game’s many match altering options. Playing with boomerang swords which fly back to you, low gravity, no swords at all, no attacks other than sword throwing and a whole bunch of other options make you feel like you are customizing a Halo 2 match. These simple options layered on top of an incredibly strong fencing engine make Nidhogg a blast to play for hours. Invite a whole bunch of friends over and watch them explode as you impale your opponent through the crotch.

As fun as this game is in multiplayer, the single-player doesn’t measure up. Fighting against the A.I. is difficult to the extent of being demoralizing, and can last for hours. You can’t save your progress in Nidhogg, which is a horrible oversight considering how epic some of these fights can get. Luckily, the single player mode is just a repetitive fight against A.I. controlled opponents, so even if it doesn’t save your progress you aren’t missing much.

Online multiplayer fights are decent, but suffer from more than their fair share of lag, and this can be frustrating. Life and death can be decided by only a few frames and any button delay that costs you a life will make you throw your controller or keyboard through the window. Nidhogg is best played with a group of friends in real life, gathering around a laptop connected to a TV.

Frankly, you just have to try Nidhogg to believe it. Its low-res Atari-style graphics may turn a lot of people off, but beneath the simple exterior is an amazing fighting game that will build hype to professional tournament levels right in your own living room. Spread the word to your friends. The next great fighting game sensation has arrived. Nidhogg for EVO 2014!

This review is based on a retail copy of Nidhogg for the PC.

8.5 out of 10 arcade sushi rating